Overwhelming rejection of wage concessions by members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) could mean troubles ahead in the country's largest union, in the past tightly controlled by its national leadership.
Union members covered by the IBT master freight agreement voted down contract revisions recommended by their president, Jackie Presser, by a wide margin, 94, 086 to 13,082, in a nationwide vote last week. The results are considered a serious blow to Mr. Presser's prestige and power in the union.
The total vote was relatively small in a union that claims close to 2 million members in a broad cross section of United States industry. But it was cast by an important segment of the union, long-haul drivers who are often its most militant members.
Presser, who assumed the IBT presidency in 1982 by an executive board vote, campaigned for the acceptance of modifications of an existing contract. The changes would have permitted the rehiring of laid-off union drivers at a significantly lower wage.
The contract negotiations were the first for Presser as IBT president. A union power in the Midwest, he took over IBT when Roy L. Williams resigned because of ill health and a federal conviction and jail sentence, now being appealed. Presser called for union-management cooperation ''to put unemployed workers back to work.'' He urged acceptance of ''moderate and responsible'' concessions.
Lower level leaders and the rank and file have seldom, if ever, rebelled against IBT presidents. A very small dissident faction, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), has never demonstrated any real strength. It campaigned against the Presser proposal and now claims that the rejection was ''a tremendous victory for the rank and file.''
''It means that working teamsters see Mr. Presser as just a millionaire who is completely out of touch with them,'' Ken Paff, a TDU spokesman, said.
Presser has been one of organized labor's highest paid executives. Many unionists openly resent his affluence. That, and his willingness to cooperate with employers on the plan to rehire drivers at lower pay, are considered responsible for the flare-up against him - one that could make labor-management relations more uncertain in the future.
Roughly one-third of the 300,000 drivers covered by the current freight-handling agreement have been laid off over the past three years, largely a result of the economic downturn, deregulation of the trucking industry and, perhaps most important, sharp and continuing increases in nonunion operations.
In appealing for acceptance of wage cuts for those who are rehired, Presser said lowering labor costs would result in the rehiring of thousands now idle and would ''restore economic dignity and security'' for those now affected by an ailing industy.
The proposed wage reductions ran into heavy opposition as lower-level IBT leaders criticized the proposed creation of a two-level wage standard. They said this could lead to less work for those employed at the higher rate and could lead to management pressures for contract reductions all along the line.
Employers seek cost-cutting concessions they say are needed to stablilize the unionized part of the industry and to aid its comeback.